January/February 2007

The Heath Brothers: Brotherly Jazz

Brotherly Jazz, the engaging and insightful 70-minute documentary DVD exploring the lives and careers of remarkable siblings Tootie, Jimmy and Percy Heath, almost collapsed before it ever got off the ground. Danny Scher, who made a mint as vice president of Bill Graham Presents, wanted to present the Heath Brothers in the backyard amphitheatre of his historic Berkeley Hills home as part of a 2004 fundraiser for the Jazzschool, the unique educational institution founded by pianist Susan Muscarella. While drummer Tootie and saxophonist/arranger Jimmy quickly signed on for the gig, bassist Percy wasn’t interested, though he hadn’t figured on Scher’s persuasiveness. The impresario got him on the phone, and each time Percy raised an objection about what it would cost to get him from his Long Island home to Berkeley, Scher said he’d cover the expense. Eventually, he realized that Scher was walking the walk, and asked him why. “I said, ‘Listen Percy, my whole life I’ve overpaid musicians, many of whom couldn’t play their instruments, and most of whom haven’t paid their dues,’” Scher says. “‘The least I can do is pay someone who has.’ And that was it. I called Tootie and said, ‘He’s in.’”

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Jimmy Heath
By Courtesy of Dansun Productions
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Percy Heath
By Courtesy of Dansun Productions
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Tootie Heath
By Courtesy of Dansun Productions

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Jazz fans everywhere should be grateful for Scher’s persistence, because what started as a simple benefit concert evolved into an incisive family portrait and loving valedictory for Percy, who died in 2005, two days short of his 82nd birthday. The film is more of a character study than a detailed account of the brothers’ careers. By sketching the Philadelphia scene out of which they emerged and briefly highlighting key moments in the Heaths’ lives, the film creates a vivid sense of each brother’s personality, capturing Percy’s quiet self-confidence, Jimmy’s sensitive pride and Tootie’s affable humor.

“If we had gone in depth on our careers, it would have been twice as long,” says Jimmy Heath, whose autobiography I Walked With the Giants is due out on Temple University Press later this year. “I mean, I started in 1945 while Percy was in the service. It capsulizes what we have contributed to the music world. We all played with the giants in the music.”

While Scher has long been a passionate fan of the Heath Brothers’ music, ultimately it was the human dimension of their story that compelled him to back the project. “I’m from a family of six boys, so I understand the dynamics of brother[s] and I couldn’t imagine playing with my brothers like that and liking it,” Scher said. “But these three guys really like each other and they communicate on a level that only brothers can. And they were getting older, and if we didn’t do it, it would never be done.”

Among the film’s highlights, Percy talks about his experience as a Tuskegee Airman in the segregated military of World War II, and how he decided to become a bass player after mustering out of the service, eventually landing his defining gig with the Modern Jazz Quartet. In the film’s most moving passages, Jimmy talks about taking up heroin to assuage his hurt over the breakup of a relationship, and how he returned to the music scene in the mid-1950s after several years in prison. Tootie’s illustrious career gets the shortest shrift, but he fires off the film’s best line, noting that “had it not been for my older brothers, I might have gone astray and become a doctor or lawyer.”

Much like the Oscar-winning documentary A Great Day in Harlem, the film captures the humor and quirky personalities of jazz musicians, with affectionate commentary by colleagues such as Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock and Christian McBride. In a surprise appearance, late legendary ABC newsman Peter Jennings offers a spot-on characterization of Percy, a close friend and neighbor. Binding the film together are the extended musical interludes drawn from the Jazzschool benefit concert, expertly produced by the documentary’s director Jesse Block, video director of the Monterey Jazz Festival since 2003.

“I’m an old-fashioned director,” says Block, who spent a decade as a director for Black Entertainment Television’s [BET] jazz programming. “I actually come in with a whole video truck switcher package like I do at Monterey, and cut the show live. But once we did the concert, I told Danny we need to find a way to join the interviews with the concert footage and make it compelling.”

Brotherly Jazz premiered at the Monterey Jazz Festival in Sept. 2005, and has been received well on the film festival circuit, including the In-Edit Music Documentary Festival in Barcelona last October. For Jimmy, the documentary’s release on DVD was a welcome addition to the yearlong celebration of his 80th birthday in 2006, and a much appreciated tribute to the eldest Heath.

“We played well that night, not our best, but I thought it was a good night because of the atmosphere, the idea that we were finally doing a Brothers DVD,” he says. “And it’s very good we did, because it wasn’t long after that Percy passed.”

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